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Alphus Gibb lived by himself in a house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a porch, a kitchen, and an antique fireplace. When it was snowing, and it was always snowing, Alphus would put on his thick burgundy robe with fur-lined hood and cuffs, and walk off the back porch into the snow to feed the birds. He liked to pretend that he was Belle from Beauty and the Beast, his favorite movie. He’d imagine that a fearsome, hairy but sweet monster was gazing down at him, seeing his goodness and generosity to the light and happy creatures and wondering how he would ever get the beast to fall in love with him to break the spell and turn his kitchen appliances back into people.
Alphus lived to feed the birds. He liked best to watch them run; they’d slim down their feathers and straighten upright. The birds were quail, a whole cult of them, living in the long-dead raspberry bushes. The old raspberry stems had become a wooden lattice, hard and strong as any thatched Elizabethan roof or Indian longhouse. Here the birds communed. Scampering in and out, they’d always hit their head feather, the feathers bobbing and shrugging. Alphus thought they looked like arrows saying, “You can find me here.” He thought about getting one for himself, but he’d never be accepted into the quail cult, he thought. They were too impressive. From time to time they decided to take great flights into the air, up to seven or eight feet! No, he’d stay on the outside, feeding them, pretending to be Belle.
Alphus spent a lot of time with his mother. His mother spent most of her time being in love with Jonny Kruszymkortcha, a Jewish Pole, or a Polish Jew, or a Jewish Polish person, living in snow country America, who told everyone the news. Eleven at night, five in the morning, he was on Masha’s flat screen, HD, really big television. He’d sit behind his wide desk like a peppy particularly consequential bartender. And did I mention he was handsome? At least to Masha. She used to have a smaller TV. It was more normal, and it sat in its corner of the room, more or less unimposing, humming always to commercials and sitcoms and the odd storm warning. Then Masha, and perhaps Jonny himself, thought it was time for the next step in their relationship. So now she owned the Mongotron300 – 87 inches and she loved every one of them. She used to tell Alphus how she was in love.
“What does that mean?” He’d ask her.
Being in love was being fixated on someone. Being interested in them, spending all your time watching them. Saying romantic things and layering regular conversations with the erotic. That’s what Masha would tell him, and she’d say how much it hurt sometimes. The person you’re in love with can inflict pain with just a twitch of an eyebrow. A small sigh in your company can tell you he might secretly be thinking about something else, about someone else.
“Sometimes when Jonny looks away from the teleprompt I just break into tears! I could kill him during those times!”
Ah yes, that was what being in love was all about.
Alphus thought about being in love, but so far he had experienced none of the symptoms. Alphus was not in love with Jonny Kruszymkortcha. His eyebrow antics had never given Alphus so much as the hiccups.
As much as Masha was for being in love she was, in no way, shape or form, in any year, ever, in support of marriage. “Do not get married, Alphus.” She would say. “Can you imagine what would have happened if I had married your father?” Alphus could not imagine. Not about that.
Masha figured marriage was too risky – fifty percent of marriages ended in divorce, and the people who stayed married died. Divorce or death were not good options; it wasn’t logical to get married. And Masha thought that if your actions weren’t logical then you deserved whatever consequences you got. Hence, in her mind, married people deserved to die. In fact, Masha rejoiced in the rising divorce rate; it was driving the death-rate down. Alphus hated when she talked about marriage.
It was snowing, like always, and Alphus was outside in his robe feeding the birds and thinking about Belle. He wondered if Belle got married. If she did, he wondered if the birds got hungry and froze after she died. Poor Belle. Poor quails.
He looked up from these musings to see the snow falling more heavily, in big chunks. A gust of wind kicked the tops of the dunes into a white sheet. Alphus had to shield his eyes. When he lowered his arm, his white fur cuffs even whiter for the snow, he saw the most amazing sight that his eyes had yet beheld. A bird, two or three times the size of the quail, was standing to the side of the yard. Its feathers were bright shades of gold, red and purple. Its tail dusted the ground with grace.
Alphus was interested. Alphus was fixated. Alphus felt that if the lovely bird so much as battered an eye in the wrong way, he would be in great pain. Alphus had read on the Internet how pheasants exhibited strong sexual dimorphism; he thought that sounded great. For that’s what this bird was, a pheasant. Alphus was in love.
He noticed how the quails paid it very little attention. How could they just scuttle around like that when Dionysus herself was among them! The pheasant was the only thing in his world; he felt no cold, no hunger, no pangs of regret for past wrongs, no fear for the future. He was only aware of the pheasant, the great bird of bold colors.
He thought to himself, a very honest thought that would only be appropriate in the presence of his great love. He took that thought and decided to hide it deep in his heart, so deep that his mother could not even find it if she looked. And Alphus did not know; someday she might be inclined to look. In a small dear voice, hard like a pebble cupped in the palm of his hand, in view of the pheasant of his affection, he thought: Someday, I would like to get married.